Hanukkah (alt. Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the Menorah, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a shamash (Hebrew: "guard" or "servant") is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud, against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah story.
Hanukkah is mentioned in the apocryphal/Deutoro-canonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees states: "For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication...should be observed...every year...for eight days. (1 Mac.4:56-59)" According to 2 Maccabees, "the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths."
"Hanukkah," from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", marks the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
The miracle of Hanukkah is described in the Talmud. The Gemara focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the occupiers had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a ‘’single’’ day. They used this, and miraculously, that oil burned for ‘’eight days’’ (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready).
The Talmud presents three customs:
- Lighting one light each night per household,
- One light each night for each member of the household, or,
- The most beautiful method, where the number of candles changed each night.
Around 200 BC Jews lived as an autonomous people in the Land of Israel, which at that time was controlled by the Seleucid Empire, one of the Empires that formed after the death of Alexander the Great. The Jewish people paid taxes to Syria and accepted its legal authority, and they were free to follow their own faith, maintain their own jobs, and engage in trade.
By 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. At first little changed, but under his reign the practice of Judaism was oppressed in an effort to remove it entirely. In 167 BC Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple and a pig sacrificed on the altar. This is referred to in the Book of Daniel in a future prophecy as the 'Abomination of Desecration'
Antiochus' actions proved to be a large miscalculation as they provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer"). By 166 BC Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BC the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated to God, Jehovah, not Zeus.
The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event. After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The primary ritual, according to Jewish law and custom, is to light a single light each night for eight nights. As a universally practiced "beautification" of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night. An extra light called a shamash, meaning guard or servant is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud, against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah story. This differs from Sabbath candles which are meant to be used for illumination.
Other Hanukka rituals include the giving of presents and the eating of fried food such as latkes (potato pancakes). The fried foods are used to represent the miraculous oil that burned eight times longer than it was supposed to.
The dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words, נס גדול היה שם, Nes Gadol Haya Sham—"A great miracle happened there.”
In the state of Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pe), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Haya Po—"A great miracle happened here" referring to the fact that the miracle occurred in the land of Israel. Some stores in Haredi neighborhoods may sell the traditional Shin dreidels.